Team pHFine Scale

(Pronounced Fine Scale)




What's all this pH stuff about anyway?

pH is the measure of how much acid or base is in a solution. Precise measurement of pH in saltwater is challenging. Atmospheric measurements of CO2 show rising levels due to combustion of carbon based fuel - chemical models predict that rising C02 in the atmosphere results in a higher percentage of C02 dissolving into the seawater of the oceans. This dissolved CO2 dissociates into ionic form as carbonic acid, which is a normal part of the natural cycle; however, with the increase in C02 concentration in the atmosphere, this results in higher acid concentration and lower pH in the ocean. We're not talking stomach acid levels, but rather subtle levels; some organisms are sensitive to this change, especially those that have calcium shells - creatures like coral and crustaceans.


Scientists have estimated that the ocean pH level will lower by 0.3 pH units (global average) by the year 2100; the ocean will change from around 8.1 to 7.8 pH. This change would be seen as a drop of approximately 0.003 pH units per year. Typical pH instruments can easily be calibrated to measure a 0.1 change in pH.  With 'lab quality' pH instruments and carefully controlled procedures, a pH measurement accurate to 0.01 pH can be made. The challenge is to create an instrument and a calibration procedure that can achieve accuracy within 0.001 pH units. The number of people making accurate measurements of pH in the ocean is small and this results in a lack of market force to create the pH instruments and calibration process.


The Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPrize provides $2 Million in prizes to help kickstart the investment in pH instruments. There are two prize categories, one for high accuracy and the ability to perform to 4000 meters of depth; the other is for low cost and ease of use, yet high accuracy. First place in each category is $750,000, while second place is $250,000.


When the Ocean Health XPrize was announced, 77 teams signed up; this dropped to 54 who agreed to pay the $1000 entry fee, with one of these payors being Jack Maughan, who formed team pHFine Scale.    




-pHFine Scale Team story-










Our team worked on design, manufacturing, calibration, and delivery of pH instruments to a coral reef ocean acidification project at Heron Island, part of the Great Barrier Reef. This was Jack's first experience with building electronics and measuring pH. Daniel Hejde was a big help in this effort as well.



During the course of building the first instrument we saw opportunities to improve long term stability and the electronics design, as well as to adapt it for both glass electrode and ISFET pH electrode sensing elements. We are actively pursuing miniaturization and cost reduction for the pH instrument.



The design leverages concepts from an environmental monitoring and water control project that had been in the prototype stage prior to focusing our efforts on the Wendy Schmidt’s Ocean Health XPrize.

We have two main mentors on this project: The first is Thom Maughan, a software engineer at MBARI, who also mentors our local robotics club, providing training on software development and electronics design. He has offered to pay half of the entry fee if the team manages to get an instrument to work in the first X-Prize trial. Thom chose to not to enter the competition as a team member as he wants the team to step up, create something new and innovative, do the work and learn about engineering. He also does not want conflict of interest because of his past work at MBARI. He has given the team lots of new ideas to consider; some of these ideas are quite whacky, such as using printed electronics for pH electrodes.  Our second mentor is Glen Walder, a retired Colonel in the Air Force. He is a dynamic example of a life-long learner/teacher and a trusted source of information.

Edited Image 2014-10-4-20:43:57
Edited Image 2014-10-4-20:43:57



Edited Image 2014-10-4-20:43:57
Edited Image 2014-10-4-20:43:57


-pHFine Scale Team Members-

Jack Maughan
Founder, Technical Lead

Hi, I'm Jack.

I helped build High Resolution pH sensors in 2010 that were used in a coral reef ocean acidification experiment at Heron Island. At the time, I saw several opportunities to improve the pH instrument design.


I am continually learning new things about analog electronics, microprocessors, signal processing, and software. Prior to the announcement of the Wendy Schmidt’s Ocean Health XPrize, I had been working on a wireless sensor network product for water management of landscape plants.


I have built several prototype pH instruments and I am working on reducing the cost of the design while maintaining the performance. I used money I have saved over the years to pay the $1000 entry fee for the XPrize, and it was my idea that initiated the project.


I have lived near the ocean all my life and I enjoy ocean sports and a healthy ocean. This summer, I trained and studied for a position with the California State Lifeguards and I now work as a paid lifeguard at the ocean. I am using my income to fund the pH sensor development.

Ethan Kurteff

Hi, I'm Ethan.

I have been Jack's friend since fourth grade, when he moved from southern California. I've always had a passion for engineering and do-it-yourself projects. Jack and I have tackled all sorts of engineering projects, ranging from building a motorized go kart to constructing rocket engines, mostly for our own enjoyment.


Until Jack told me about the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health Xprize, I was unaware of the importance of the ocean. I am thrilled to be able to make a contribution towards progressing ocean health awareness.


By applying knowledge gained from my work with the local robotics team (go Rockin' Bots!), along with experience from my own pursuits, including a basic knowledge of coding in C, and experience in 3D printing, I hope to provide an accurate calibration equation and setup for our pH sensor. I have learned that it is no easy task to control a testing environment with 0.001 unit of pH accuracy and repeatability.


My interests include golf, banjo, snorkeling, technology, and dirt bikes. I take a STEM heavy approach to school, and I aspire to become a mechanical or aerospace engineer.

Bridgett Maughan
Marketing, Education

I am interested in design and art. I am learning to use social media to encourage my generation to make a positive impact. I love marine wildlife especially dolphins!  I am learning about the chemistry behind pH in the ocean and making drawings to show kids how our pH sensor works.


Activities: Project

Three year participant in California State Junior Lifeguard program

Enjoy ocean and lake SUP and kayaking

Initiated lessons on social media platforms for seniors

Equine and Aviation enthusiast

Lisa Walder
Project Manager

Hi, I'm Lisa.

I managed the manufacturing and delivery of High Resolution pH sensors used in a coral reef ocean acidification study conducted at Heron Island off the coast of Australia.


I have a Masters Degree from California Polytechnic State University, and experience wtih web marketing and sales, customer service, and project management.


My strength is in creating an organization that fosters teamwork, innovation and passion in producing quality products.


I am working to start up a company, iSea Solutions, to create instruments and software applications for environmental monitoring and water management.

Wendy Schmidt’s Ocean Health XPrize is a major opportunity to jumpstart this team of young people and their feed their enthusiasm. Their mindfulness and sense of purpose is perfectly blended with the goals of this contest.

Benek Robertson

I met Jack at a local robotics club and joined the effort to build a low cost pH instrument.   


I am exploring designs to withstand the high pressure of the deep ocean and be inexpensive to manufacture.

I volunteer at the Monterey Bay Aquarium as a docent. I enjoy ocean sports and computer games. I also have set extreme personal goals of educational success while in high school and later for college.

Caroline Maughan
Marketing, Fundraising

My interests are in biology and genetics. I'm working on the biofouling prevention portion of the pH sensor and setup for testing effectiveness. I'm also working on team communications and social media.   


Areas of interest and activities:

Save the Sharks initiator and speaker at Project

Outreach to Mexico to teach kids ocean ecology and appreciation for the ocean

Marketing and Design for Robotics club

Uber volunteer, Presidential volunteer service award, Red Cross

Sang at the 2012 London Olympics with the Monterey Choral Society

I like surfing, swimming, SUP and water polo.

Glen Walder

Glen is a retired Colonel in the Air Force. He is a dynamic example of a life-long learner/teacher and a trusted source of information.   Glen keeps us straight in our thinking.

Thom Maughan

I'm an embedded software engineer at MBARI and I mentor local high school students at the Carmel Robotics Club. I participate in Robo Rockin Bots Team 2035 competitions.